History of Dragon Boat Festivals

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Traditionally held on the fifth day of the fifth moon on the lunar calendar, late May to mid June on the solar calendar, the Dragon Boat Festival commemorates the life and death of the ancient patriot-poet Qu Yuan who lived from 340 – 278 B.C. Qu Yuan was a minister who advocated reforms in his home state of Chu.

After being discredited and disgraced by bitter political rivals, he was banished from the state of Chu after criticizing the government and the emperor. In exile, Qu Yuan wrote poetry expressing his concern for his country and people.

In 278, when Qu Yuan learned that his former state had been conquered by another of its neighbouring states, he wandered along the banks of the Mi Lo River and was never seen again.

Some say that he picked a heavy stone up in his arms and threw himself into the river. Along the banks of the river, fishermen hurried out in their boats in a desperate attempt to rescue him, but they could find no sign of him.

Fearing that the fish in the river would devour his body, the people made rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves and dropped them into the river, thinking that the fish would leave Qu Yuan’s body alone and eat the dumplings instead.

The fishermen also tried to scare away the fish and hungry spirits by beating loudly on their drums and splashing the water with their paddles.

From that time on, the Chinese commemorated the death of Qu Yuan by holding a dragon festival each year on the anniversary of his death – the 5th day of the 5th moon. From this festival came the tradition of racing dragon boats. With drums beating and paddles splashing came a fast and furious sport with crews fighting for honour and glory.

Since then, the Chinese tradition of dragon boat racing has come to memorialize the noble spirit of Qu Yuan, who is remembered for his self-sacrifice, his steadfast morality, the power of his writing, and his concern for his fallen countrymen.

Before the festival begins, an ancient ritual for rousing the dragon boats to life, called the “Awakening of the Dragon”, is performed by a special eye-dotting ceremony.

Many of the boats were decorated with the heads of dragons on the bows. Later they were given the name dragon boats, and the event was termed dragon boat racing. 

About the Sport

As a modern sport, dragon boat racing was developed for the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in 1976. The boats raced today are 40 feet long and are constructed from glass fibre, rather like large canoes.

Wooden gunwales and seats help to retain a traditional look, and the boats are fitted with a colourful dragon’s head and tail, plus the drums for racing. A crew consists of around 20 paddlers sitting side by side, with a helm to steer the boat and a drummer to keep the rhythm.

Dragon boat racing is becoming one of the fastest growing and most popular sports in the world. The sport started in the Far East and is very popular in Europe & America. In the UK alone the sport has estimated that 41,000 people in 850 crews take part in events throughout the summer months.

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